Music

Neil Young Is In The Midst Of One Of The Strangest Phases Of His Entire Career


Getty Image

Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Neil Young has always been one of our “weirder” rock stars. Whether it’s his fascination with turning old ‘40s and ‘50s gas-guzzling Cadillacs into electric cars, dressing up his roadies as Jawas from Star Wars, creating a triangular-shaped digital listening device to compete with Apple, or turning two old barns into a pair of gigantic stereo speakers at his Broken Arrow ranch, Neil has always been one to pursue any idea strikes him as even mildly interesting. That impulse has also found its way into his music as well, including most recently on his new album The Visitor.

When considering some of Neil’s stranger sonic turns, most people immediately hone in on his work throughout the 1980s. More specifically, the 1982 album Trans, where he traded in his trusty acoustic Martin and electric Les Paul guitars for a vocoder and synth and poured his heart out over a sad, electronic suite of songs. While the finished product left a lot of people — including the folks running Geffen Records — scratching their heads, there was a method to his madness. “Trans, was inspired by my son Ben and his communication challenges,” he explained in his memoir Waging Heavy Peace. “He couldn’t talk or communicate in a way that most people could understand, so I made a record where I sang through a machine and most people couldn’t understand what I was saying, either.”

Following the backlash that came from Trans, Neil made a return to rock record called Everybody’s Rockin’ with a backing group called The Shocking Pinks. The only problem was the rock he returned to wasn’t his own, but rather an earlier ‘50s swing style. Then in 1991, there was the album Arc, in which he channeled Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, turning in a disc comprised of a single, 35-minute long track of twisted guitar feedback. And of course, who could forget his 2003, “audio novel” Greendale, which was recorded with his trusted backing group Crazy Horse.

All that being said, the past three years have found Neil creating some of the strangest music of his career, surpassing even the most bewildering projects he strung together throughout the ’80s. It seems as though the limitless void of the digital landscape has finally caught up with Neil’s thirst to produce new projects at the speedy clip he’s always aspired to. That, combined with a series of major transformation in both his personal and professional life seem to have freed him up to pursue some of his wilder ideas with abandon.

From a consumer’s perspective, things started going off the rails following the release of his last album with Crazy Horse, 2012’s expansive, 90-minute long Psychedelic Pill. That record found Neil in vintage form, jamming out for extended intervals with his most idiosyncratic, and adored backing outfit. It was a triumph. Critics loved it. Fans loved it. The tour was celebrated. Then, as he often does, Neil went into the ditch.

For the follow-up to Psychedelic Pill, the mercurial Canadian teamed up with Jack White in 2014 for a record called A Letter Home. The collaboration looks great on paper — one of the great rock auteurs of the 20th century teaming up with one of the great rock auteurs of the 21st — but the results were beguiling, to say the least. The entire album was recorded inside of a tiny telephone booth of a machine called a Voice-O-Graph manufactured in 1947, resulting in 40-minutes of lo-fi covers, peppered with spoken-word addresses to his mother Edna “Rassy” Young.

It’s the kind of project that’s interesting in theory, but leaves a lot to be desired in execution. Just six or so months later, he went into a different direction completely, dropping Storytone, an album so over-the-top in its inclusion of lush, Disney-esque orchestral arrangements, you had to wonder if he was trying to distance himself from A Letter Home project in the grandest way imaginable.

At the same time as this was all going on, Neil’s personal life was going through a sea change of epic proportions. In August, he filed for divorce from his wife of nearly four decades, Pegi Young, while starting a new relationship with the actress Daryl Hannah and relocating from his longtime home in North California back down to Malibu, the locale where he created some of his most stunning works.

This drew the ire of his long-time friend and collaborator David Crosby, who said some unkind things about Hannah during an appearance on Howard Stern. He has since been ex-communicated from Young’s orbit, dooming any prospects of a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young return. Meanwhile, in Crazy Horse-land, Billy Talbot, the group’s rock-solid bass player suffered a stroke, throwing the future of that particular entity into real doubt.

Despite all these severing’s of longstanding relationships, or maybe because of them, Neil pressed forward into uncharted territories. He found a brand-new band called The Promise Of The Real, led by his buddy Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, and hit the studio, hit the road, and for the first time in years, reportedly hit the bong pipe. The result has been a triptych of wild and weird releases, beginning in 2015 with The Monsanto Years, which, as you can surmise from the title, is an extended shot at the commercial forces who provide our nourishment.

Then came the live album Earth, which, for whatever reason, was augmented with overdubs of different animal noises and nature sounds. There was a short interlude where he introduced a pair of stripped down releases — one new, Peace Trail, and one old, an archival recording from an all-night session back in 1976 called Hitchhiker — before linking with the Promise Of The Real once again for his latest creation The Visitor.

The Visitor is album without much subtlety. It’s the sound of a 72-year old Canadian taking a sledgehammer to the newly-established order in the country he’s called home for decades. The specter of our current president, a man that Young denounces as a “game show host who has to brag and has to boast about tearing down the things that I hold dear” on the song “Almost Always” hangs heavy over the entire thing. The first single, “Already Great” can’t be taken for anything less than a full on attack against Trump and his MAGA worshippers.

In the bridge, he and the Promise declare over and over, “No wall / No ban / No fascist USA.” Whether he ever hears any of this new music or not — I’d give it about a snowball’s chance in hell that he does — Trump is actually a noted Neil Young super fan, going as far as to use his song “Rockin’ In The Free World” on the campaign trail. Neil is aware of this of course, and perhaps this is his way of trying to get the commander-in-chief’s attention?

While the message and the effort is strident and commendable, I’m not entirely sure of how effective Neil’s new compositions function as songs. There is a sense that these tracks were cooked up rather quickly and committed to tape even faster. Maybe with a little more editing, revising, and refining, they might have carried a more thoughtful punch, but as it stands, The Visitor is a record filled with uppercuts, begging for a jab here, or a right cross there to mix it up.

That’s not to say it’s without some truly odd left-turns on the sonic front. Chief among them is the song “Carnival,” which finds Young channeling his best impression of the Beatles’ immortal hit “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite.” In the lengthy, eight-and-a-half minute song, he adopts the pose of a maniacal master of ceremonies, barking with laughter over some Spanish-flavored rhythms.

Over the past three years, Neil Young has demonstrated that weird is his new normal. While he continues to pay service to his fans through long-hidden releases like Hitchhiker, and whatever else pops out of his immense archive in the same mold as his contemporary Bob Dylan, it’s evident that he’s decided to follow his muse into some pretty twisted realms. Maybe we’ll all catch up to what he’s creating in due time, but it’s clear that Neil is standing around waiting to find out.

Bootleg Bin

In the early-to-mid 1970s, Neil Young was at the absolute pinnacle of his creative powers, even while it took his audience a minute to realize it. Shortly after releasing his only No. 1 album to date, the largely acoustic Harvest, Neil famously made a musical left turn into darker plains, creating what’s now referred to as his “Ditch Trilogy.” At the heart of this period was an album called Tonight’s The Night, a record that Neil cooked up in the wake of the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, and his faithful roadie Bruce Berry. Though Tonight’s The Night wasn’t released until 1975, Neil decided to tour behind it three years beforehand with a backing group called The Santa Monica Flyers.

Audiences everywhere were dismayed by the new material, to say the least. Most came to the shows expecting to see the solitary, wounded figure, cradling an acoustic guitar, and were instead treated to a tequila-fueled jam session set in front of a rundown beach motif. One of the few recordings from this ill-fated tour was made at the Rainbow Theatre in London on November 5, 1973. Sensing what must have been going through the crowd’s mind, Neil decided to play the antagonist. After running through most of the material from his latest, unreleased record, the singer promised that, “we’re gonna play something you’ve all heard before.” Then he launched into the title track from Tonight’s The Night which he used initially to open the set.

×